Clint Eastwood’s $90-million baby
BEVERLY HILLS — Clint Eastwood was doing a rare round of interviews to promote his new film last weekend when someone asked about his “sensitivity.”
Pointing at another reporter who used the word in an earlier question Eastwood said “he’s the one who mentioned sensitivity,” prompting the room to erupt in laughter.
Though he seems more affable grandfather than Dirty Harry these days, Eastwood shows no signs of softening.
Or, after decades in the movie business on both sides of the camera, at the age of 76, slowing down.
But even if he doesn’t like to talk about it, Eastwood has approached his current subject matter, as with those he’s tackled in the past, with a tricky combination of grit and that word he doesn’t seem to much like talking about.
Opening Friday, Flags Of Our Fathers is about the iconic Second World War photograph capturing the American flag-raising on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. It is a massive project for anyone, but Eastwood in particular. At $90 million, it’s by far his largest budget yet.
The epic film incorporates massive beachfront invasion scenes, features some 100 speaking parts and spans three periods in time. The story behind Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s Feb. 23, 1945, picture of five Marines and one navy corpsman raising the flag on the island’s Mount Suribachi is not a simple one to tell, and that was just fine with Eastwood.
“I think as I’ve matured — if that’s a way of saying aging — I’ve reached out to different sides of stories that were appealing to me,” said Eastwood.
Those stories probably attracted him as a young man too, he said, but back then “the pressure was on” to do movies with a lot of action.
“As I got to this stage of life, where I am now, where I’m retreating to the backside of the camera,” he explained, “I just felt it was time to address a lot of things that were closer to me than a lot of the fantasy characters I might have been involved with.”
Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo captured the imagination of the American public and provided momentum for the final push to end the war. People back home wanted an uncomplicated, uplifting story to go with it. But the photo showed the second flag-raising that day (an American military higher-up requested the first flag as a momento) and though perceived as a symbol of victory, was snapped just days into what turned out to be a bloody, month-long battle in which Japan lost almost all of its 22,000 soldiers and nearly 7,000 Americans died.
Within days, half the men in the photo had been killed. The American government wasted no time shipping the trio of survivors — navy corpsman John (Doc) Bradley and Marines Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon — back home to capitalize on the popular picture and drum up cash for war coffers as part of the famous Seventh War Bond Tour.
Still youngsters, the three became instant celebrities just a short time after watching their comrades die on the battlefield.
Inwardly, all struggled with their war experiences, their notoriety — feeling they didn’t deserve it — a government willing to exploit them and adjusting to life after it all abruptly ended mere months later.
“It wasn’t really a war story. I wasn’t setting out to do a war movie — I’ve been involved with a few as an actor,” said Eastwood. “But I liked this. It was just a study of these people.”
Still, Eastwood has not flinched from creating shocking, grisly combat scenes and because of the content, there are those who have tried to draw parallels between this film and the current war in Iraq. Eastwood, who was 15 when the photo was taken and well remembers the Seventh War Bond Tour, wouldn’t wade far into that debate other than calling war in general a “futile exercise.”
“The country seemed much more, I’m sure it wasn’t, but in hindsight, much more unified,” he said.
“The war we’re in today is, excluding the Iraq war on the front lines, ideology, religion, there’s a lot of factors coming into it, that may make the next war even more difficult. This one was much more cut and dried.”
Eastwood became interested in the project after reading James Bradley’s 2000 same-named bestseller.
Son of the highly decorated navy corpsman in the photo, Bradley grew up in a house where the subject of Iwo Jima was mostly off-limits. It was only after his father died, after conducting interviews with those who fought on Iwo Jima, that Bradley learned how those in the photo had been tormented by the experience and put all the pieces together into the book.
“I’ve always been curious about families who find out things about their relatives much after the fact,” said Eastwood.
“And the kind of people I’ve talked to, many veterans of this campaign and other campaigns, the ones who seem to be the most on the front lines and have been through the most seem to be the ones who are quietest about their activity.”
Eastwood also wanted to explore themes in the book about the fleeting nature of celebrity and our society’s obsession with heroes.
“In the era we live now, everybody’s being considered a hero,” said Eastwood. “In that era, in the ’40s, heroes were people of extraordinary feat.”
During the process leading up to Flags, Eastwood starting thinking about the Japanese soldiers and sent for the book Letters From Iwo Jima, constructed of missives home from Japanese Lieut. Tadamichi Kuribayashi. He persuaded the studios to let him make a second movie, in Japanese, from the Japanese perspective.
Letters is set largely in the underground tunnels used to defend the island, and stars actor Ken Watanabe.
While much of Flags was shot in Iceland, where the black, volcanic sand mimics the look of Iwo Jima, Letters was mostly filmed in California.
A brief trip to the remote Japanese island, which is considered a shrine and not open to tourists, provided key shots. Beachfront invasion footage from Flags — shot so realistically one veteran complimented Eastwood on incorporating archival footage into the movie — will double for the second film.
Letters will be released in Japan later this year, and is scheduled to open in North America in February.
“I think each film stands on its own, but the two projects are fascinating together,” said Rob Lorenz, a long-time Eastwood associate who served as producer on both movies. “I think seeing one makes you want to see the other, and vice versa.”
With Eastwood, who picked up a best picture and best director win in 2005 for his last project, Million Dollar Baby and Paul Haggis’ turning in his first screenwriting credit after last year’s best-picture winner Crash, Oscar buzz for the much-anticipated theatrical release of Flags has already started.
Winnipeg-raised, Ottawa-based actor Adam Beach has also been pegged for a possible supporting nomination for his standout portrayal of troubled flag-raiser Hayes.
Eastwood read Bradley’s book shortly after it came out and knew he wanted to make it into a movie, but Steven Spielberg already had the rights. It turned out Spielberg had hired former marine William Broyles Jr. (Jarhead) to write the screenplay but couldn’t get a version he liked.
That’s when Eastwood ran into Spielberg, who suggested he produce and Eastwood direct. Eastwood tapped Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Haggis to adapt the book, recalling Haggis joked he had an 11% chance of cutting down the complicated, sprawling tale into a coherent film .
Once he came through, Eastwood decided on a cast of lesser-known actors — Ryan Phillippe as a young Bradley might be considered the biggest name — to keep the focus on the story.
“We just try to show these guys are really just a bunch of kids who are set off to fight for their country,”he said.
All of those involved in the project marvel at Eastwood’s well-known tendency to run a spare ship when it comes to movie-making. He is notorious for capturing scenes in just one take, with Phillippe estimating 80% of the movie was shot that way.
“I think that’s why his movies tend to be so alive,” said Phillippe. “There are little mistakes … and it’s as imperfect as life. He likes it, he likes mistakes and there are little nuances of that kind of reality.”
Canadian Barry Pepper, who was in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and plays flag-raiser Sgt. Mike Strank,says as a director Eastwood is as lean and efficient as every character he has ever played.
“He never raises his voice and everyone quiets around him within 100 yards of earshot to hear his next move,” Pepper told Sun Media. “If you don’t, you’ll be left in the dust. He’ll just shoot it without you.”
Pepper split his lip after one of the movie’s rigged explosions blew up in his face during a combat scene.
The medic on set said he’d have to go to the hospital for stitches. Dripping blood, Pepper went to Eastwood and told him he didn’t want to go to the hospital for fear of being left out of that day’s scenes.
“He laughed. He knew exactly what I was talking about … He said ‘Good. It’s a long way from your heart,’ ” recalls Pepper.
Eastwood then reached over to pull out a piece of copper wire Pepper didn’t know was embedded in his lip, and proceeded to tell him about the day he was shot clean through his left side with errant shrapnel on the set of 1992’s The Unforgiven.
“We just kept on filming,”said Pepper. “Those were those most magical moments on set, listening to him tell stories.
Clint Eastwood’s $90-million baby